NEW YORK (AP) — A company that promised sick 9/11 responders and NFL players with concussion injuries that it could "cut through red tape" to get their payouts faster lured them into advances that meant hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegally high interest and fees, authorities said Tuesday.
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, New York's attorney general and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau allege that New Jersey-based RD Legal Funding and its founder Roni Dersovitz snared 9/11 responders who are struggling with cancer and respiratory illness as well as former NFL players with brain injuries into taking costly advances on their settlements.
Authorities said the company contacted the responders and former NFL players when it found out about their settlements, but before the people were actually paid. RD Legal Funding allegedly advertised that it could "cut through red tape" to get victims their money more quickly, but in fact had no legal ability to do so.
"The alleged actions by RD Legal — scamming 9/11 heroes and former NFL players struggling with severe injuries — are simply shameful," New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement.
Dozens of companies promise immediate cash advancements for people who are awarded settlements, but cannot wait for the settlements to be processed. It's become a cottage industry that has a regular presence in advertisements on cable TV.
Authorities say RD Legal used unscrupulous tactics, charged interest rates as high as 250 percent and high fees on the advances, and collected millions of dollars in interest and fees. They did not specify how many people were allegedly victimized or release the names of any of the NFL players.
Authorities said in one case, a 9/11 responder was awarded $65,000 from the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, and RD Legal advanced her roughly $18,000 on her settlement, but she ended up repaying $33,800 to RD Legal six months later due to fees and interest.
David Willingham, a lawyer for RD Legal with Caldwell Leslie & Proctor, called the lawsuit by the CFPB and New York "outrageous and without merit." Willingham also said RD Legal had sued the CFPB in January, as the investigation was proceeding, alleging that it did not have the legal standing to bring such a case.
"(RD Legal) did nothing more than provide immediate liquidity — in the form of an arm's length transaction — to people who voluntarily sought the benefits of early funding (of their settlements)," Willingham said.
New York attorney Michael Barasch, who represents roughly 10,000 police officers, officer workers and other people affected by 9/11, said one of his clients was victimized by RD Legal. A NYPD officer who was awarded a multimillion-dollar settlement for the injuries he sustained borrowed $355,000 from RD Legal to cover his expenses before getting his full settlement. When the officer received his full payout 18 months later, RD Legal allegedly charged the officer more than $500,000 in interest and fees on top of the $355,000 originally owed.
"When he told me what happened, it sounded like usury," Barasch said. When Barasch refused to pay RD Legal, he and his NYPD client were sued for breach of contract.
Barasch said "dozens" of 9/11 first responders, only a few of them his clients, were allegedly victimized by RD Legal.
Lawyers representing NFL players struggling with dementia and other neurological diseases as a result of playing football have been warning their clients about advance-payment companies.
"Though the promise of cash-in-hand can be tempting, especially during difficult financial times, if you are able to resist borrowing against any payments you might be eligible for ... you should," wrote Christopher Seegar, who is co-lead attorney for the NFL players.
The Securities and Exchange Commission has an unrelated case pending against Dersovitz and a hedge fund he runs called RD Legal Capital. That complaint claims Dersovitz used investor funds to purchase stakes in high-risk investments that were not disclosed clearly to his investors. Dersovitz is fighting that SEC complaint, saying he did disclose his practices to investors.
Ken Sweet covers banking and consumer financial issues for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @kensweet.